Slag business is proving to be rock solid for Beaver County business
About a year ago, the towering hill above the former LTV Steel site in Aliquippa was a giant mound of slag atop an old dump with young trees poking through.
A few rusty chunks of metal and rocks as large as wrecking balls dotted the side of the gravelly road leading up the hill.
Now, in one of the Betters family's latest ventures, diggers, crushers and conveyors work the hilltop to turn the old mill site into a profitable piece of property.
The Beaver County family has owned Beaver Valley Slag for about 20 years, one of several companies in Charles J. Betters' empire of construction and demolition businesses. It has been mining waste rock from the blast furnaces that was dumped into valleys and side lots at the site, selling it as gravel and as raw material for cement and steel makers.
Once a small piece of Betters' construction operations, Beaver Valley Slag today has a growing share of business.
Betters declined to give revenue or profit figures of his privately held businesses. But he said Beaver Valley Slag's share of his businesses' revenue has doubled to more than 20 percent over the past 15 years.
Steady buying from road builders has led to the expansion on the hill and a deal with the international company Gravmax that will mean construction this fall of a joint venture plant on the riverside below. The facility will help make the most of even the smallest pebbles.
“We're pretty optimistic with it,” Betters said. “If it works there, there's probably three of our other sites we'll move on to.”
Betters bought the mill site in a 1993 bankruptcy sale, initially intending to redevelop it for riverboat gambling, but state lawmakers did not approve gambling on the water with the law that brought casinos to Pennsylvania.
He credits the state for making legal reforms that encouraged redevelopment of several old mill sites along the rivers, including projects that became The Waterfront in Homestead and SouthSide Works in Pittsburgh. It gave landowners flexibility for cleaning up contaminated sites, including lower thresholds if a site would remain as industrial use.
Beaver Valley Slag is a success story from that policy, said Davitt Woodwell, vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. The group gave the company one of its five Western Pennsylvania Environmental Awards this year for turning the site from a polluter into a profitable reclamation project.
“Before that (law), it was cheaper for companies to throw up a fence and padlock it rather than seeing what possibilities are actually there,” said Woodwell, who oversees the council's local operations. “Looking at brownfields, they're actually an amazing resource in the region.”
State regulators initially were skeptical about whether Betters would dig into the site, said Carl Spadaro, a former project manager at the Department of Environmental Protection who helped with the company's award nomination. But Betters followed through: To obtain a state mining permit for the site, he stopped discharges from the slag heap that caused foam on a surrounding stream, Spadaro said.
“He sets his mind on a project and he gets it done,” said Spadaro, the environmental general manager at Max Environmental Technologies Inc., a waste management company in Upper St. Clair. “He's done very well on old, abandoned sites that nobody wanted. There's a vision there. He's a hard salesman.”
LTV and, before it, Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. left about 100 million tons of slag on the site, the largest reserve east of the Mississippi River, the company claims. That includes parts of the plant — metal that was scrapped — in addition to slag formed when the furnaces used molten limestone to purify iron. The traces of iron can lead to runoff pollution from the dump but can be valuable.
When the plants operated at their peak 70 years ago, they didn't have the technology or the incentive to salvage useful scrap. Beaver Valley Slag crushes the slag and uses magnets to extract metals. Mills buy it to melt and reuse, paying as much as $360 a ton. That's up from $75 per ton when the company started, said Charles J. Betters II, who oversees the company's operations.
Brokers sell the product to about 20 mills, primarily the Timken Co. facility in Canton, Ohio, he said. Rock that is left behind can be used for highway construction or housing. Some was used in parking lots at Robinson Town Centre and several Wal-Mart stores, to help with draining water from the lots, Betters II said.
The company will work with Gravmax USA on an $8 million plant they expect to finish on the site by December. The company's technology will help to sort the smallest bits of metal, and that could increase iron recovery by 10 percent and oxide recovery by 20 percent, Betters II said.
If it goes well, it could lead them to build a furnace to make pig iron on site, he said.
“What they're doing here is something most companies wouldn't want to deal with,” said Carlos Garcia Cabral, a project manager with the company. “Now it's about insight and, I'd say, the courage to take on a site, an opportunity like this.”
Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer.